Back before my time on the family farm, we had too many farm cats. As you may or may not know, farm cats are cats that wander by their own free will to a family farm. They catch mice and birds, and occasionally the farmer will give the pack of them a scoop of feed in an old aluminum pan that’s nestled into some barn straw.
The cats come and go, and that’s why it’s best not to give them too personal of a name. Something like “Calico,” or “Old Blue Eyes,” will do.
Now, at the time our farm had too many cats, another farm, the farm of a friend across town, had no cats. Every farm needs a few good cats.
And so my family lured a pack of cats into our cattle trailer with that aluminum pan of feed, slid the door locked, and took off across town. When they got to the friend’s farm and slid the door open, there was—one kitty and a pan.
The other cats had been either too intelligent or too doomed to make the trip.
I start with this story for two reasons. The first reason is that this is not unlike a happening in a Tom Drury novel—rural, inexplicable, possibly morbid, but not without its humor. The second reason is that the phrase “too intelligent or too doomed” could be applied to the women of the Smart Woman Adrift novel—a term Katie Roiphe coined for the genre in this 2013 Slate article. (It also would not be strange for some misguided man in these Smart Woman Adrift novels to call women, “kitties.”)
Now, for some reason, these have been the only novels I can read as of late—Smart Woman Adrift novels and Tom Drury. It might have to do with the pacing of mind for which I apologized on Monday. These novels are like friends that find mind’s pace and jog alongside, making the tedious, the disappointing, the “of course it would be that way,” fantastically arresting.
But they seem, in that first glance, unlikely companions. Drury’s novels are primarily set in the “driftless area.” The driftless area (also the title of Drury’s second novel) is that area of the Midwest that the glaciers kindly left unflattened. It’s primarily farmland and river and cliffs and mines. Small towns scattered about like jack and ball. Tight-knit families and chicken feeds and versatile trailers. It’s the area where all those cats vanished without so much as a note. It’s not an area without its wanderers and mystery, but I’ll get back to this shortly.
The Smart Woman Adrift novels tend to be set in cities along either American coast. There is a lonely, urban atmosphere about them. That, or the women take to the road to think, to speed, to show themselves and others that they can. Safety never comes first. Risky decisions are tacked on to precarious situations. Roiphe describes the novels as follows:
[T]here is a radical fragmentedness, a supremely controlled tone, a shrewd and jaded observation of small things, a comic or wry apprehension of life’s absurdities, and pretty yet melancholy vignettes of the state of being lost. They center around an intelligent but emotionally fragile or keenly sensitive woman without a man, or moving from man to man, a woman, in short, without a stable or conventional family situation, in a state of heightened, nervous awareness.
Now, I should say that a very intelligent person recommended Roiphe’s article and the genre to me, and that another very intelligent person recommended Drury’s work to me some years ago. That is how literature spreads. But an awful lot of books come with recommendations, and an awful lot of those are wonderfully written, but these are the only books that stuck this year.
A sampling would include all of Tom Drury, all of Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, and so on….
The writing in both Drury and the SWA novels tends toward minimalism. The dialogue is spot-on. Strangers tend to remain strangers, which means, as we all know from childhood, that they will be dangerous in some way; they will also be incredibly important to these plots. There is, moreover, a certain sense of the gothic in these books, and it’s particularly American: the overlooked and the repressed come to the surface in exactly those places thought safest—the cities flocked to for hardworking anonymity until a “name” is made, the small town where danger seems unimaginable because nothing new is supposed to happen there.
And, of course, there is the humor. It’s always there.
Here are two, for lack of a better word, “break-up” scenes. The first from Drury’s latest novel, Pacific, and the second from Adler’s Speedboat. In this scene from Drury, Wendy has just locked Jack (one of these wanderers I warned you about) out of the house, as she’s become aware of his past.
Jack backed the Mustang into the garage, where he found three boxes on the concrete floor. Opening them to make sure she hadn’t kept his music system, he saw that she had baked him a pie, wrapped it in wax paper, and laid it on top of his shoes and moccasins. He took the pie out and placed it on the floor, determined not to take her charity. But it looked good, so he put it back in the box.
He loaded the trunk and closed the lid and tried the key to the door in the garage.
“Not this one either,” said Wendy from the other side.
“Thanks for the pie,” said Jack.
“Oh. You’re welcome. It’s apple.”
“Remember when I said you were smart?”
“Well, I’m not so sure about that anymore. I think you might have a learning disorder.”
“You don’t scare me.”
And now read Adler’s scene, which follows a man moving across the country, and almost daring a woman to meet him, knowing she won’t. Or so he thinks. Watch for some of the same elements: startled wandering, an abrupt break, a history catching up with the characters’ fresh steps, and, of course, that sense of absurdity.
When I arrived at Aldo’s door, he met me with a smile that seemed surprised, a little sheepish. We talked awhile. Sometimes he took, sometimes I held, my suitcase. I tried, I thought, a joke. I asked whether there was already a girl there. He said there was. He met me in an hour at the corner drugstore for a cup of coffee. We talked. We returned to the apartment. We had Scotch. That afternoon, quite late, I flew home. I called him from time to time. He had his telephone removed a few days later. Now, for a while, he’s here again. He’s doing a political essay. It begins, “Some things cannot be said too often, and some can.” That’s all he’s got so far.
A suitcase light enough to held throughout a conversation, three boxes with room for an apple pie. These characters can drift because there is so little holding them down.
I have been thinking, lately, about the incredible number of books we writers tend to own, always with the underlining, the checks, the marginalia. And while we can get into a car, or on a scooter, an airplane, a train, we will almost always be paying rent—or perhaps a mortgage—for a place to keep our books, whether it be home or a storage unit. Books ground us, and call us back to a physical place. Perhaps this is the real danger of an iPad--driftability.